BT’s Bridget Lea for International Women’s Day

Creating a level playing field for women at work.

Bridget Lea is the Managing Director of Commercial at BT / EE. She has held senior roles at Sainsbury’s, O2, Oasis and more, and is also a non-exec at Marston’s and governor at Manchester Metropolitan University.

She sat down with ORESA for International Women’s Day, telling us about her storied career, gender equality and what it takes to be an inclusive leader.

You’ve worked in fashion, food and now telcos. Tell us how you got started.

It wasn’t the traditional career path, that’s for sure. I was a young mother of two small girls, working as a part-time filing clerk in the Co-Op headquarters in Manchester. I was asked to help the graduate trainees find their way around the business, and I could immediately see they were doing more interesting work than I was, getting paid more than I was, and had a clearer future career path than I did at the time.

I wanted what they had but I didn’t have the all-important degree. So, I got myself enrolled at Manchester Met to study IT and after a lot of hard work and juggling of responsibilities I got my dream job on the graduate programme at M&S.

When I applied, the expectation was that I would be able to relocate anywhere in the UK which for me, as a mum of two small children, just wasn’t possible. Fortunately, I was interviewed by brilliant women who understood my situation and offered me a role, with the understanding that my career would be limited to roles in the Northwest. I was prepared to make that sacrifice if it meant achieving my goal of becoming a graduate trainee.

My experience as a graduate trainee and the insights learned along the way have since informed my career.  I am now driven by the pace of change in a sector that uses connectivity to shape the future and improve customers’ lives. Bringing innovative and inspiring products and services to customers, and ensuring that the benefits of technology are available and accessible to all is an exciting place to be.

As MD of Commercial, it’s great transforming our channels from places that customers ‘need’ to visit occasionally, to channels that customers ‘choose’ to visit regularly for inspiration, innovation and world class, trusted, personalised experiences. My goal is to create the most simple, seamless and inspiring customer experiences in the industry, whether that is online, over the phone or in-store.

Retail is a great place to start your career. You learn about quality, the importance of delivering trusted customer experiences, how to lead and motivate teams, and how to deliver strong commercial results. Whether you’re fascinated by digital, finance or people, the industry is full of opportunities across a range of areas. Retail offers a wide variety of roles to accommodate individual strengths. I’ve worked across multiple sectors, including fashion, grocery and technology, learning from each, and gaining transferable skills.

How did that experience influence how you approach talent attraction and development?

It has definitely ensured that I am always open minded and has meant that I naturally look out for talent in less traditional places. I know what it’s like to feel invisible to the people trying to spot talent in an organisation.

Grad schemes are fantastic but they are not the only route – there are some superb people moving through business with different backgrounds and experiences and it is so important to make the time to take an interest in someone’s career. A simple conversation about the next role can be all it takes to inspire someone to pursue their dream.

I think it’s incredibly important to build diverse teams, as they foster a culture of innovation and really push the business to be as progressive and forward thinking which in turn leads to strong commercial results. This has been a big focus for me in my role at BT / EE.  I initiated the BT/EE partnership with 10,000 Black Interns in summer 2022, launching a pilot for 8 interns to join my Commercial team. The programme supports black students and graduates in realising their potential with paid internships across finance, technology, and other sectors. The pilot has been hugely successful, and BT/EE has committed to hiring a further 40 interns across Consumer, Consumer Digital and CIO Teams this year.

Tell us about a leader who inspired you in your career.

A highlight for me was working for Jane Shepherdson, the incredible brand director at Topshop. I was lucky enough to be a part of the team that built an iconic and leading fashion brand. Jane was and still is a game changer and the first female leader I had worked for. She was strong, creative and a true visionary, who empowered her predominantly female team very publicly.

Jane helped me to believe in myself and to be authentic in my management style. She inspired me and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that influence at a key point in my career.  After working for Jane, I decided I’d never work anywhere that I didn’t have real respect for the ethos, vision and values of my line manager. My bosses have all been male since I worked for Jane, but they share similar values and are passionate about doing all they can to create inclusive and empowering environments where people can thrive.

What will it take for there to be a level playing field for women at work?

I’m a black female in the corporate world. In my personal life, as a black person living in the UK, race is much more of an issue, but in my corporate life gender has been the bigger challenge.

I truly believe that there won’t be an even playing field until there are more women in senior positions who are able to create a culture that is inclusive for everyone

It’s the small, everyday things that constantly remind women that they have to make that extra effort to be included by the men around the table. The onus is on both men and women to make the change. Men have a responsibility to be allies, to ensure the minority woman in the room is being included and to call it out when women are not treated equally. The onus is also on other women to support each other.

I hope for a future where we have a working environment that’s brilliant for everyone, regardless of gender. I try to be the conscience of the people around me. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable, but I will call it out – with care – when people are getting things wrong.

What does a good conversation about inequality at work look like?

It starts with awareness that there’s a problem. It then takes a willingness to listen to someone else’s lived experience with an open mind.

From my experience the best conversations have been when we all feel in a safe space, without any fear of repercussion and where there is a genuine want to make a change.

I have been very lucky in my career to work with some very supportive and inclusive men and women who I have been able to have very open conversations with when the need has arisen.

Organisations are getting much better at creating safe spaces for these conversations. At BT Group we have fantastic ‘People Networks’ that give communities of people and their allies a space to share their experiences with the Exco and senior leaders in a constructive way. They are a huge driver of change in our business and are key to how we build our inclusion strategy.

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